WHARTON, Texas — It began as a battle of the titans, with Rick Perry — the longest serving governor in Texas history — being challenged in the GOP primary by the state's senior U.S. senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison.
But as the multimillion-dollar contest comes to a close, Perry's bid for another four-year term appears to hinge not only on Hutchison's strength but on the fate of the third candidate in the race -- Debra Medina, a once-obscure insurgent whose showing in the March 2 primary will decide whether Perry wins outright or faces an April runoff.
With Perry holding a seemingly insurmountable lead in polls, the governor's race in recent weeks began evolving into a surprise battle for second place as Medina appeared to be within striking distance of overtaking Hutchison, one of the state's dominant political figures.
But Medina's detractors -- as well as several independent analysts -- say she may have self-destructed in a Feb. 11 interview with conservative commentator Glenn Beck by not immediately disavowing a theory that the U.S. government may have played a role in the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
The former Wharton County Republican chairwoman quickly sought to repair the damage, saying there was no doubt that Muslim terrorists flew the hijacked planes on 9-11. Medina now says she believes the incident may have strengthened her candidacy by galvanizing supporters, positioning her for a strong showing against her two Republican rivals.
"Did it feel good? No. Am I sick of answering the questions? Yes. I am," she said in an hourlong interview last week in her Wharton campaign headquarters. "But at the end of day, I think it's going to be labeled backfire," she added, repeating her contention that she was set up in Beck's interview.
The incident focused "a tremendous amount of media on the campaign," generating additional support and campaign contributions, she said. Her supporters, she said, "just got mad, and when people get mad, they fight, and when they fight, we win."
Others say the full impact of the remarks won't be known until the election. In the heavily Republican Fort Worth area, where the 47-year-old businesswoman enjoys her strongest support, there are indications that the gaffe may have chased at least some Medina supporters into Perry's camp.
"We've had a few people who returned Medina signs and have switched their support to Rick Perry and wanted Rick Perry signs," said Tarrant County Republican Chairwoman Stephanie Klick.
Adrian Murray, a Medina supporter who heads the Fort Worth 912 Project, said "there might be a small percentage that have dropped their support" but he added that most of Medina's conservative supporters in Tarrant County remain united behind the candidate.
"If I suspected for a moment that Debra Medina was a truther, I would drop her faster than a hot potato," Murray said, in reference to the 911 Truth Movement that subscribes to the possibility of government involvement in the terrorist attacks. "I just don't believe it [that Medina subscribes to the theory.]"
Medina appeared Saturday in Fort Worth at a candidates forum and rally hosted by a coalition of conservative organizations including Tea Party activists and members of Murray's group, which was founded as part of a national conservative movement inspired by Beck. Murray, a Fort Worth auto-parts executive, recently split with Beck after contending that Medina was ambushed in the radio interview.
"I don't think it's had as much damage as some people might think," said Anthony Reed, a Haltom City councilman and a Medina organizer in Tarrant County. "Most of the response I've heard has been against Glenn Beck himself. I know people who are literally throwing their Glenn Beck books in the trash."
Medina, who grew up on a South Texas farm, became a nurse and formed a medical consulting and billing company, has been active in GOP politics since the mid-1990s and won election as the party's county chairwoman in 2004. After gaining attention through political training seminars and speaking appearances, like-minded political supporters urged her to step into the governor's race. But in a contest dominated by the two giants of the party, she appeared destined to wallow in the single digits until break-out performances in two candidate debates drew attention to her feisty personality and message of limited government and state sovereignty.
Her signature issues include replacing the property tax with sales taxes and whacking away at government regulations. She has also advocated a moratorium on executions in Texas to address abuses in the criminal justice system although she continues to support capital punishment.
Over a barbecue lunch at her office in Wharton, about 60 miles southwest of Houston, Medina said she has been unfairly portrayed as an extremist and wrongly identified as a Libertarian. She said her views generally parallel the Texas Republican Party's platform.
"If you go to look up 'good old Texas girl' in the dictionary, you'd find Debra Medina," she said. "There's nothing radical or extreme about me except my zeal for the U.S. Constitution and truth and honesty in government."
But supporters of the other candidates contend that Medina champions proposals that are out of the mainstream and say that she may wind up as the political version of a one-hit wonder, unable to survive through the primary.
"I think the more she opens her mouth, the less regarded and respected she is as a viable candidate," said Fort Worth attorney Ralph Duggins, one of Perry's major backers in Fort Worth.
Former Fort Worth City Councilwoman Becky Haskin, who co-chairs Hutchison's campaign in Fort Worth, predicts that Medina will get enough votes to propel Hutchison into a runoff with Perry but will be unable to muster widespread support and remain a viable candidate. "She has far-out ideas and no experience, and that really scares people," Haskin said.
Nevertheless, Medina's message clearly resonates with a significant segment of the electorate -- particularly Tea Party activists -- who largely distrust establishment politicians and are effectively declaring war on big government and high taxes. A mid-February poll conducted for the Star-Telegram and four other major Texas newspapers showed Medina with 17 percent of the vote, continuing a steady climb from 4 percent in a Rasmussen poll in November. The survey was concluded before Medina's statements in the Beck interview, leaving pollsters only able to guess about the potential impact of the remarks. Perry had 45 percent while Hutchison had 29 percent in the survey.
The three-county Fort Worth region gave Medina 26 percent, her best showing of five urban areas covered by the survey. Perry had 40 percent in the Fort Worth area, compared with 20 percent for Hutchison.
Analysts said Medina's strength in Tarrant County is a reflection of the area's stature as one of the most conservative regions in the country, as well as a stronghold for the Tea Party movement. She also has an aggressive cadre of supporters in the region. "There's been a lot of shoe leather and elbow grease in Fort Worth," Medina said.
New York pollster Mickey Blum, whose company conducted the survey for the Texas newspapers, said Medina's supporters, both in Fort Worth and elsewhere in the state, may be uniting behind the nontraditional conservative activist because of "dissatisfaction and anger" with the status quo.
Fifty-three percent of voters statewide said they believe Texas is heading in the right direction, but only 42 percent of those identified as Medina voters feel that way. Twenty-five percent of likely Republican primary voters said that "sending a message to Washington" was more important to them than state issues facing the governor. But, among Medina voters, the percentage was much higher -- 44 percent.
Blum said the anger reflected in the poll numbers suggest that Medina supporters may "be more fired up" than those of the other candidates, but she said it remains to be seen whether Medina will be hurt by -- or rebound from -- the Beck interview.
With Perry at 45 percent in the poll, it's conceivable that the Republican incumbent could gather enough Medina defections as well as undecided voters to get a majority and win the primary without a runoff, Blum said. She also said the survey provided "no evidence" that Medina is poised to overtake Hutchison, raising the likelihood that the two candidates in a runoff would be the governor and the senator.